Bullpen Story
The Crimson Rider
Lauren Buck


Western Short Story / Bullpen

Pa said there was an art to this dance. But while he could do the pirouette, I’m not sure he ever threw a punch in his life.

The oaf rushes me with a shout; I juke to the side, then deck him in the face. My knuckles sting – a little – but he crumbles and I have to grin. He struggles to get to his knees, grunting like an old sow with her feet hobbled for the butcher.

“Get up!” Hiram screams. “Get up!”

That bastard bet against me again, didn’t he? I pause to wipe the blood from my nose and give him a wink. The old shopkeeper’s ruddy complexion shifts from an apple-red to glow like a steam-engine boiler, but that doesn’t make hot-shot here pick himself up any faster.

“You had enough, Mel?” I jab him in the ribs with my steel-tipped riding boots.

He mutters a string of what are probably curses – I don’t speak Irish – but he has the sense to stay down this time. He’s a big man, lean with broad shoulders and a strong jaw, and if I remember right we were born in the same year – though none of that did him any good today.

I raise a gloved hand and look over the crowd with a triumphant smile. “Any other takers?”

Hiram and his louts grumble, but everyone else either laughs or starts a half-hearted applause which carries across the empty alley to echo off the back of the saloon. While they all begin exchanging their bets I slip off my gloves and extend Mel a hand.

He snarls at me like rabid coyote and pushes himself to stand on wobbly knees. He’s drunk of course. I’m not sure Mel O’Sullivan has been sober a day in the past two years, but I still feel bad putting a whooping on him.

Just a little. His brothers all died fighting for the Confederacy, after all, and I don’t reserve much sympathy for greybacks.

Mel hocks a glob of spit at my feet; the effort makes him stumble and flops his mop of red hair over his eyes. “This don’t…” He steadies himself, then jabs a finger at my chest. “This don’t change shit, Rhoda. I’ll say it again: the Crimson Rider ain’t no better than an outlaw. No, he’s worse than an outlaw, at least an outlaw don’t pretend to be workin’ on the right side-”

My fists clench and I’m seconds from punching his nose again when Hiram stomps up and shoves a wad of cash at my chest.

“Here.” He speaks through clenched teeth and doesn’t look me in the eyes. “You want to go another round that’s on you, but I’m out.”

The feel of worn dollars against my bare fingertips does a lot to assuage my anger, and Mel lurches off towards the saloon while I’m counting my bills. So this bloody nose earned me three dollars. Not bad.

Although I wasn’t after the money today.

The crowd meanders back to their chores, all except for the smart-dressed man in the black cattleman’s hat who I’ve been pretending not to notice. He strolls towards me, spurs flashing in the setting sunlight, as he casually checks the time on the silver watch hung on a chain that spans his vest pockets.

He reeks of money, in a way any half-decent fellow would try to hide.

I ball up my bills then stroll to the wall of the saloon to retrieve my crimson, open-crown hat I left on the barrel beside the back door – all while making sure to keep my head turned.

“Ms. Price?”

Damn, he already knows my name. I push back the brim of my hat and meet his icy-blue gaze with a casual grin. “That’s me, sir.” I extend my hand like any good, trusting girl ought to. “And who might you be?”

He smiles – the look doesn’t reach those piercing eyes – and shakes my hand with all the intensity of a drowned rat. “An emissary.” With a flick of his wrist he pulls a playing card out of his inner jacket pocket, pins it between his first two fingers, and holds it out toward me. It’s the five of clubs. “Tonight. At nine.”

“Excuse me?”

He really smiles this time. “You needn’t play games, darlin’. Although I did find your display this evening entertaining.” He slips the card into my belt, behind where I stuffed my crimson leather gloves. “Let’s just say the Rider has suitably attracted my benefactor’s attention already.”

Shit, he’s one of Becker’s men. Strolling about so openly? Of course I wanted to get Becker to notice, but – shit! Somehow that son of a bitch still manages to surprise me.

The man tips his hat as though I haven’t been standing here working my jaw like a fish out of water, then strolls off along the boardwalk, towards the sunset. I squint at his figure but don’t dare follow. It looks to me like he’s packing a pair of .36 caliber navy revolvers under his frock coat and I’m as sure as hell he knows how to use them.

I’m not about to tangle with an ex-greyback, not when I left my Walker Colt back with Emily.

I let out a breath and adjust the hat on my head. Calm down you fool, this is what you wanted. Don’t blow a top and mess this all up now that you’ve got so close.

Those three dollars suddenly feel like a weight in my pocket, and they say maybe it’s worth stopping in the saloon – for a drink, this time.

* * *

“One more.”

Emily raises an eyebrow but refills the shot glass anyway. “Sometimes I think you and Mel would make a good match after all. Like whiskey and fire.”

I laugh then down the amber drink in one gulp, but Emily doesn’t share in her own joke. Absently, she returns the bottle to the shelf beneath the counter and stares off towards the red sunlight streaming through the saloon doors in the back of the room.

“I don’t know why you have to pick on him.”

“He started it.”

Emily shoots me a look.

I grin, but I know she means well. “I wasn’t trying to get at him, honest.”

She sighs and begins to twirl a strand of her long dark hair around her finger. She’s tall, petite, and downright gorgeous – it breaks about every stranger’s heart to learn she’s married.

“Did you get what you wanted at least?”

I pull my gloves out of my belt and lay them on the counter, then produce the playing card with my own attempt at a dramatic flourish. Emily stares at it, her dark eyes wide.

“Damn it all, Rhoda, you’re going to get yourself killed. I told you that – you know I’ve always told you that.”

Again, I have to laugh. “And I always tell you not to worry, I’ve got it handled.”

Emily picks up one of my gloves then drops it onto the counter; the knuckles strike with a tell-tale metallic thud.

“Hey!” I snatch the gloves out of her grip and shove them back into my belt. I steal a glance over my shoulder, but fortunately the men gathered around the back table are too busy laughing at their own jokes to have noticed.

Emily frowns at me. “You have it handled.”

I return the look.

She sighs and leans up against the counter, folding her arms across her button-down dress. “Whenever I went around looking for trouble, my mother would tell me: tumunga, remember that force, no matter how concealed, begets resistance.”

I spin the empty shot glass in my hand and think about spending the last of my dollar on another one more. “And what the devil is that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. But I think it has something to do with why my family has me standing here selling drinks to the likes of you, while other Lakota take up arms and head north.”

There’s a fierceness in her eyes when she meets mine, but then we both grin.

“Nebraska is your state too now, you know. Even if bumbling President Johnson didn’t want to let us in the union.”

Emily laughs, then grabs herself a shot glass and pours the both of us a drink. “You can bet Lincoln wouldn’t have vetoed. I miss him.”

I shrug, then savor this sip of whiskey. It always tastes better when it’s on the house. “My Pa would have agreed with you, I think. Can you believe it, but the only thing I ever saw him angry over was slavery? It’s quite a feat, riling a pacifist to fightin’ mad…”

“Ah, I think you’ve had enough.” Emily snatches my half-emptied shot glass and shoves it back under the counter with the whiskey bottle.

“Hey-” I start, on the verge of fighting mad myself.

“You know you only start talking about your father after you’ve had too many.”

Damn it. She’s right – of course she’s right. I can feel the soft embrace of the liquor now, but somehow it crept up on me this time. I sigh, then massage my temples with my hands. It’s been a week or two since my last hangover, and I’d like to keep it that way.

Emily studies my face with entirely too much sympathy. “Nothing is ever going to bring him back. Is this the life he would have wanted for you?”

That’s too far, Emily. I push myself up from the barstool, then tip my hat. “Maybe I’m not doing this for him.”

* * *

The cool night air does plenty to take the edge off the whiskey, and I’ve still got the scent of the fields in my nose as the smart-dressed bouncer leads me past the tables to the back room of the Five of Clubs gambling house. He walks in without knocking and leaves me standing outside the nondescript door, with nothing but the evening’s few poker players murmuring in the background. I adjust the shoulders of my crimson riding coat as though I were shaking off the road dust, not beating down the tangle of excitement and nerves quivering like rattlesnakes in my chest.

This is it, my fourth – and probably last – shot at Becker. After ten months of my dirtiest work yet, and eighteen years of waiting. Anymore the bastard only lets those of his employ near him.

The door opens and the bouncer beckons me in with a nod. I reach for my .44, expecting him to ask it of me, but he catches my hand and shoves the pistol back into its holster.

“Keep your weapon, Ms. Price,” the voice within says. It’s definitely not Becker’s. “You’re far more useful with it.”

I step into the shadowy lantern light to find one man reclining with his boots on an empty poker table. It’s the same damned greyback I met outside the saloon.

He smiles at me, then motions to the chair across from him. “No, I’m not him. There have been multiple attempts on my benefactor’s life over the years, so he prefers to meet face-to-face only when necessary.”

I sink into the chair, anger boiling in me. “And just when would that be?”

“Inquisitive, aren’t you?” He drops his feet to the floor and leans forward, studying me with a gleam in his eye that reminds me of a mountain lion who’s stalking a mule deer fawn. “He’ll show when the job is done.”

I don’t trust myself to speak sensibly, so the man uses the silence to stare me down. An attempt to intimidate me, I guess. I don’t blink.

He chuckles, then breaks from my gaze to pull a bottle of bourbon and two glasses from under the table. “The Crimson Rider has built quite a reputation. Word on the plains is he’s a vigilante, bringing the fist of justice down on outlaws here in Nemaha County.” He fills one glass, then the other, and slides the second towards me. “But my benefactor noticed something others seem to have missed: the Rider always lets a few slip away. A very certain few.” He meets my gaze again, then sips his bourbon.

It’s expensive stuff, judging by the label, but I ought to know better than to drink at a time like this.

“Well? What is it you’re after?”

“I wanted Becker’s attention.” God, I hope that’s not too close to the truth. “A piece of the action.”

The man nods, slowly, and I can’t tell what he’s thinking. The dim light and deep shadows make it look like he’s got a hawk face, with thin cheeks and a nose that’s curved a tad too much like a beak. The kink in the center tells me he’s broken it a few times.

“My benefactor is a shrewd business man. Many come looking to take a piece of his success for themselves, but you Ms. Price…” He gives me another once-over, like maybe I’m a used wagon he’s considering for a purchase, and his gaze lingers on the bulge of my .44 under my coat. “You, I think, can add to it.” He pulls an envelope from his vest pocket, without the flourish this time – apparently we’re beyond that – and lays it on the table. “This is a time and a meeting place, tomorrow. Do that job well and there may just be a spot for you.”

Slowly, I take up the envelope and shove it into my jacket. This is more than I bargained for tonight, but it’s still one step closer to Becker and that’s a step I’m willing to take.

“In the meantime, why don’t you enjoy the facilities?” The man rises and motions to the half-closed door behind me. The energy in the poker room has certainly picked up, from my vantage I can’t see an empty seat. “My benefactor authorized me to give you twenty dollars, on the house.”

What, so you can loosen my tongue with a little bit of contrived winnings, then try and catch me with my guard down? Grinning, I rise to my feet and run a finger along the edge of the bourbon glass. “Tell Becker I appreciate the offer, but one vice is enough for me.”

* * *

The sunset burns red behind the rock pinnacles, which are the only thing to rise above the plains for miles in any direction, and I spur Satan in the ribs to get him to pick up the pace. He has to stomp and snort a little first, but turns one black eye on me when I reach for the riding crop and finally does as he’s told. Anyone who asks thinks I’m the devil for giving him that name, but – trust me – this horse has more than earned it.

I’m supposed to meet the fellow at ten, near where they’re putting in the new railroad tracks, but I figure I’d rather be early than late. It’ll give me a chance to check the place out.

A dog’s bark brings Satan to a loping stop. I lurch forward in the saddle, muttering a curse under my breath, then bring in my left reins and get the horse turning in an easy circle. The dog – some big, brown mutt that looks more like a wolf than a pet – keeps barking but stays out of range of Satan’s flashing hooves.

It’s Mel’s dog. Everyone remembers when the damned thing got loose in town as a pup, but anymore he’s always kept it chained up with his chickens.

“Hey!” I wave a hand at the mangy thing. “Go home!”

The dog simply snarls at me and lunges at Satan’s hocks. Shit, this stupid animal is going get itself killed, and I’d rather not be the one to owe Mel a new dog. I dismount and force myself between Satan and the mutt. My horse paws the ground – maybe he thinks I’ve come to help him fight – but the dog quits barking and takes a step back.

“Not so brave now, are you?”

The dog snaps at my outstretched hand but he was a foot and half away from catching me. I pull my lasso from my saddlebag and with a few quick twists of the rope I manage to hook the loop over his neck. The dog whimpers and tries to pull away, but the noose catches him tight and he’s not quite dumb enough to strangle himself.

“Come on.” I give the leash a tug then glance away from the sunset to try and find Mel’s house. It’s a couple hundred yards away, a small cabin and barn nestled beside the biggest red oak tree I’ve seen in Nebraska. This will set me back, but only in time – and I’m early anyway.

It’s a struggle to keep Satan from nipping the dog’s neck, but we make the trek alright – that is, until a speckled sheep charges past us. The dog starts barking again and tries to run after it while Satan snorts and pulls back.

“Guys!” I wrench both animals back into place at my side before they tear me in half. What’s gotten into you Mel, letting all your damn animals…? The gate is propped open, held that way with a stone, and most of the sheep have run off.

“Mel!” My voice echoes back to me off the side of the barn. “Mel, somebody’s left your gate open!”

There’s no reply, there’s not even a light on in the cabin, but a dark figure sitting beneath the oak tree catches my eye. It looks like a man, could be Mel – but what in the blazes is he doing out in his yard at this time of night?

I catch the dog by the scruff of his neck and shove him into the sheep pen. It’s a bit of work to get my rope free without him biting me, but once I have it I knock that stone aside and shut the gate before he can tear after me. He tries anyway, snarling at me as he shoves his snout through the wooden slats of the fence. I pull Satan a few steps farther to hitch him to the corner post, leave my rope slung over the saddle horn, then make my way towards the tree.

“Mel?”

The figure doesn’t move, but as I get closer the horizon’s glow catches in his hazel eyes. It’s Mel alright, he’s sitting there staring out at the darkening plains – his bare feet in the dirt – with a bible in his lap, open to a chapter in Revelation, and a pistol gripped loosely in his right hand.

My stomach lurches and for a second I have to think he’s dead. But, he looks up at me with distant eyes, then grimaces.

“Oh, fuck off Rhoda.”

It’s nice to see you, too. “Your damned dog came tearing after my horse, I was bringing him back.” He doesn’t reply to that. “Somebody let all your sheep loose, Mel. What the hell you doin’ out here?”

He still doesn’t answer me, he just keeps staring out over the plains. His eyes are bloodshot, but I don’t smell alcohol on his breath – my God, I think he’s sober. And he’s…

“Damnit!” I snatch the pistol out of his hand; he doesn’t even try to stop me. “Jesus! What, what were you thinking?”

He shakes his head, slowly, but still doesn’t look at me.

Shit. Now I really feel like an asshole for what I did yesterday.

“Cian died for the Union.” Mel kind of sounds drunk, but I guess despair will do that. “No one even bothered to ask, they all just assumed…”

“Mel-”

“He and John were both killed at Stones River. Peter died at Gettysburg. But me?” Mel laughs, bitterly. “I stayed on this fucking farm because I couldn’t pick a fucking side. Ma and Pa came from Missouri, I hate slavery as much as anyone, but I didn’t vote for Lincoln – half of us didn’t vote for Lincoln – what gave him the right to make us stay? Is that good enough reason to fight and die for slaver holders?”

Don’t get all philosophical on me, Mel; that war ended two years ago, there’s nothing you can do now. I steal a glance at the sunset – I’ve still got some time, but not enough to make it to town and back.

“You live alone?” Damn it, I don’t know why I just said that. “Come on,” I take hold of Mel’s arm and try to pull him up. At first he makes no effort to stand – he must weigh as much as a stack of bricks – but with a little more insistence he lets me drag him to his feet. His hands shake – from withdrawals, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. “Don’t you have a cousin who lives west of here?”

He nods.

“Go see Emily at the saloon, tell her I said that someone needs to get a hold of them for you, alright? I’d take you myself but I’ve got someplace I need to be.” He doesn’t react, so I force a bit of a laugh. “Don’t worry, Emily is a lot nicer than me.”

He shakes his head again, his gaze fixed on his feet. “I let the horse go.”

Shit. He won’t be able to walk into town from here, but I should be able to make it to the rendezvous on foot. “Take mine. Just be careful, he’s an ass. And I’m keeping this.” I hold up his pistol, then shove it my jacket pocket. “Call it a trade. You have any other guns in the house?”

He doesn’t reply – I don’t really blame him this time, but I know the answer has to be yes and I don’t have time to tear that cabin apart looking for them.

“Go on,” I shove him towards Satan. “I’m goin’ to stand here until you’re a speck disappearing on that horizon.”

Surprisingly Mel doesn’t argue with me, Satan only half-heartedly tries to take a bite of his thigh, and soon enough I am standing there watching my horse ride off to town without me.

Still, it’s better than the alternative.

* * *

The greyback leers at me from the saddle. “You’re late.”

He and one other fellow are seated on horseback and I can just make out the lines of their faces in the dim starlight. It’s just open plains here, but railroad tracks run parallel with the horizon a few yards away.

“I thought the Crimson Rider rode a black stallion, a horse as swift as the wind…”

I manage to flash him a smile even as I clench my teeth. “Don’t tell me you believe all the rumors.”

“Darlin’, I don’t believe much of anything until I’ve seen it for myself.”

Hmm. Well, fair enough.

He nods towards this other man. “This here is Tatch. He’s the one who recommended you.”

This Tatch actually gets off his horse and gives me a bow, puts his hat to his chest and everything. He’s a few years older than me, maybe – somewhere around thirty – but by the look of his stringy hair and grizzled cheeks most of those years have been rough.

“Maybe you don’t remember but we had a run in outside of Brownville. I thought you were going to shoot me dead, and you damn sure could have.”

I try not to remember, but I tip my hat to him like maybe I do.

“Well,” the greyback dismounts then pulls a portrait out of his jacket pocket, “this man is going to be taking the train past here tonight. He’s an investor, looking to expand the railroad through Nebraska and out west. Our benefactor wants this deal, and would like us to send him a message.” He locks eyes with me and holds up the portrait. “Kill however many of his guards as you need to, but I want this man left alive.”

The man in the picture is probably nearing sixty, his double chin says he’s got a pot belly that’s not in the frame, but his thick white mustache and sideburns are plenty enough to distract from his bulbous face.

I recognize him, although I can’t recall his name. Just another business man, probably exactly like Becker in everything but what matters to me.

I nod to the greyback. “Got it.”

He stuffs the portrait back into his pocket then motions to Tatch. “He’s offered to go with you, but-”

“No.” Maybe this fellow was going to give me an option, but that would leave him thinking this point was negotiable. “I work alone.”

He grins again – I think this cocksure son of a bitch is starting to like me – then gives Tatch a look that says something along the lines of ‘I told you so.’ He climbs back into the saddle, and Tatch obediently does the same.

“Well, the train will be along in a few minutes.” The greyback points down the tracks. “I want you to strand the engine a half mile from the station, then head towards the bluffs. Becker will be there to meet you.”

* * *

The icy night wind whips back my coat as I pull myself onto the roof of the train. It was a bit of a sprint to catch the railing of the caboose – I’m panting behind the crimson sheet that makes my mask – but coursing through my veins is nothing but raw excitement.

I think I’m beginning to enjoy this work. That’s a terrifying thought.

The train car rattles and shakes under my feet but this isn’t my first time. I leap over the space and onto the next car and then keep running. There are two passenger carriages, half full I’d guess by the lights in the windows, but the one I’m after is the private car hitched behind the engine.

So this must be his trip back from the business meeting.

I make the final leap onto the lead carriage and my heart’s pounding in my chest. My hand instinctively runs along the handle of the Walker Colt strapped to my hip. I’ve got six shots, time to make them count.

Kneeling down on the roof, I take hold of the edge then swing myself around the side and through the window. Glass crashes against my boots and I land on my knees in the middle of the car. It’s quite posh – all leather and maroon velvet – but what I really notice is the woman in the back scream and the three bulky men by the door reach for their pistols.

I’ve drawn mine in less than a second, and in a few seconds more I’ve fired off three shots – each a deafening percussion accompanied by a foggy burst of black powder which lingers in the air. Every man drops, faces splattered in red, and that woman in the striking green dress screams all the louder.

Sorry sweetheart, with you it’s not personal.

I leap to my feet as someone behind me fires. You missed. I return fire; it takes two shots to drop him. The black powder hangs in the room like a grey cloud, but the relative stillness indicates it’s just me and the woman left here – and she’s taken to hiding behind the bar table in the corner.

Where’s Mr. Muttonchops?

Shit, there’s a door dividing this car; I must have busted into the wrong half. I dispense my last shot into the doorknob, then sink down behind the wall to reload. Fortunately, the process is lightning quick with my Walker Colt. I have to set the gun at halfcocked to spin the cylinder so I can pour in my black powder; I shove the .44 caliber ball into the slot, then use the leaver to ram each one into place.

Muffled voices sound from the other side of the door and a shadow passes over the light. No one is brave enough to step out.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to y’all soon enough.

I ram in the last round then jump to my feet, pulling the hammer back to fullcocked, just as the first man pushes through the door. I drop him with a single shot to the head, then press forward with my back to the wall. It’s instinct now; I don’t have to think, I don’t have to feel anything more than the thrill.

Cock the hammer. Aim. Pull the trigger.

Another man steps into the doorway; he gets two sloppy shots off in my direction before I fire a round through his chest. I’m met by another scream – a man’s this time. It’s Muttonchops, huddling behind his swayback leather chair.

“Please!” He screeches like a newborn piglet and the sound rings in the hazy black powder smoke. “Please, I’ll give you anything you want – what do you want? Name it! Name it, I…”

Pathetic. But the irony is, sir, you may be my means to all that.

Then, the adrenaline high crashes. It seems to fall earlier and earlier after each job. I can see the blood, I can smell the death – even through my mask, even though the powder tickles my nose.

God, my Pa would hate me if he saw this. Maybe I hate me, but the second that thought enters my mind I shove it down – smother it, drown it.

I’ve still got a job to do.

The man shrieks as I step towards him, and he starts balling after I stride past him and push open the doors to the engine. It’s always a bit of work crawling over the coal car – I stain the knees of my riding pants black – but the engineer doesn’t notice me until I step up beside him, pistol in hand. He flinches, but after looking me up and down he grins.

“Believe it or not, I’m mighty glad to see ya tonight. Whatcha need from me?”

* * *

So this is the rock Becker’s been hiding under. I had my doubts about coming to the bluffs – not that I can think of something that would stop me, but Mel’s house is the only place around for miles. Anything could happen to anyone out here.

That includes you, Becker.

I almost missed the house on my first glance, but now that I’ve spotted the doorway in the moonlit shadows of the rock overhang, I don’t know how I didn’t see it the first time. It’s a small structure, sure, but that door is solid, polished oak and the place itself perfectly defensible against anyone approaching from the front.

I don’t know if even that marshal from Dodge City could make it in there unwelcomed.

The door creaks open, letting a beam of lantern light out into the darkness, then the greyback steps out into the night. I pull off my mask, but he looks over my shoulder and nods. I’m sure he can see the light of the stranded train on the distant tracks.

“Well done,” he says simply, as though he expected nothing less.

I’m not sure how to take that.

He jerks his head towards the door. “Come on then, your benefactor’s waiting.”

Goosebumps prickle down my arms and my whole body surges with a new burst of adrenaline. This could still very well be a trap – a little voice somewhere within me screams it – but the rest of me shouts it down.

I stride through the door, I don’t know how my knees aren’t shaking, and I’m assaulted by the utter gaudiness of the furnishings. There’s an upholstered couch on the wall, the walls themselves are polished oak panels and adorned with paintings, and I half expect to see some of those electric lights I’ve been hearing rumors about.

I don’t remember Becker being so eccentric, but I suppose people change.

My heart leaps into my throat. He’s sitting at the desk, on the far side of the room. The lantern hangs from the ceiling between him and me so the brim of his hat casts his face in shadow, but the build certainly seems to be his – a little pudgy around the middle, broad shoulders.

The greyback follows behind me, closing the door, and I walk right up to that desk.

Becker doesn’t move.

God, this is it. At first my thoughts are a roar – I have no idea what to say – but gradually those words I’ve mulled over for so long come aloud on my lips. “Do you remember when you first came to the Nebraska Territory?” He doesn’t answer, so I can’t help but continue. “You were driving cattle, buying up farmland.”

Becker shifts in his seat – nervous I’d say, if I didn’t know better – but then he nods slowly. “I remember. But it was a long time ago.” His voice is higher than I recall it, but I’ve gone too far to stop now.

“Eighteen years ago, actually. Do you happen to remember one little farm? I don’t suppose you ever learned the family’s name, but it was just a small piece, home to a widower and his daughter.”

Becker doesn’t even move – I can’t see his eyes beneath the shadow of his hat to get a guess at what he’s thinking – but I’m too mad to really consider it anyway.

“He refused to sell, so you came to drive him off. The fool wouldn’t fight back, but he wouldn’t just give up his home neither. His wife was buried there. Do you remember what you did?”

Becker chuckles – uncomfortably, although he’s trying to pass it as casual. “I’ve procured many, many farms in eighteen years, I can’t say I recall this one. Is that a problem?”

“No. I just wanted to give you the chance to know why.”

I draw and fire one shot between Becker’s eyes.

The sound reverberates in my chest and my nostrils fill with the sweet, sweet scent of black powder. Becker flies back in his chair and crumples to the floor – and for that one second everything is perfect.

I drop to my knees and spin around to fire at the greyback by the door – only, he’s not by the door, my bullet bores into nothing but polished oak. A third shot rings out, and something tears through my shoulder.

I scream, the force throws me back against Becker’s desk; I drop my pistol, I can’t move my arm or close my fist. Panic surges through me with the agonizing pain, but the greyback rises to his feet – the fucking bastard must have hid behind that chair as soon as I drew my gun.

He’s laughing.

That’s what this has all been about?”

I try to press a hand over my bleeding wound; that hurts about as much as being shot. My knees wobble and I end up on the ground, leaning against the desk. He strolls towards me, confederate’s pistol held loosely in one hand.

“You know, I thought better of you? I thought maybe you knew, maybe you were trying to oust me. But all this time…” He laughs again, then crouches down beside me. “The Crimson Rider, just a farm girl with a grudge.”

I try to get to my feet but all I can feel is this pain and all I really manage to do is keep tears from rolling down my cheeks. He uses the tip of his pistol to knock the hat from my head, and then a look of realization flashes through his smile.

“You’re the assassin, aren’t you?”

My own hot blood is spilling over my fingers and I don’t have enough clarity to understand what he’s talking about.

He laughs – genuinely amused this time – then takes off his own hat to run his fingers through his hair. “Well, you succeeded. A year ago I think it was now.”

I can only stare at him. He holsters his pistol, then grabs me by the collars of my coat and drags me to my feet. That hurts like the devil and I clench my teeth to try and keep from screaming. He doesn’t seem to care; he turns me towards the desk and points to Becker’s body.

“Look.”

I do look. He’s lying in a crumpled heap at the edge of the wall; his hat’s fallen off and blood’s trickling from the hole in his temple, and-

That’s not Becker.

Fucking shit, that’s… that’s Tatch. Wearing a suit stuffed with bedsheets that’s three sizes too big for him.

“Becker spent about all his time here anyway after your second attempt, and when that third one left him with a hole through his gut and days to live, I decided to keep his spirit alive.” He chuckles. “This whole setup always worked before, the man’s reputation does precede him.”

Something in my jacket is digging into my ribs – Mel’s pistol. With a sudden burst of strength I tear it from my pocket with my off hand and rapid fire all six shots into that greyback, point blank. He was about to say something else, but those bullets tear through his chest; his eyes go wide and then he stumbles back and collapses.

Dead.

With a gasp I fall to my knees. My hands shake and my whole side is soaked with blood. I don’t even know if I can stand, but I have to get out of here. I can’t get my right arm to work, so I snatch up my pistol with my left, clutch it to my chest, then lurch to my feet. My head spins and I almost trip over the greyback’s body – I never learned his name, did I? – but I slam into the doorframe and manage to keep from falling.

I have to get out of here.

* * *

Some God-awful scraping sound rings in my ears and I wake to the scratchy feel of straw against my cheek.

Where am I?

With a groan I force myself up. That hurts, but somehow the pain doesn’t register. My whole right side feels like a swollen, aching mass; I still can’t move my right arm. My crimson coat is stained red the wrong shade of red.

It’s, it’s a barn. I’m crouched against some stall divider in a barn.

Damn it, I was trying to make it to town… trying…

I can’t stay here. I can’t stay – I have to get out of here. Becker, Becker’s men…

Becker’s dead. Becker’s been dead. All this time I’ve been killing, all this time I’ve been trying to kill him, and I already had. I laugh, the sound sticks deep in my throat and my shoulders shake, but I don’t feel that either.

The scraping continues and blinding sunlight falls across my face. I blink, my eyes won’t focus. A dark shadow passes over the sun and stretches across me.

Shit. Shit, that’s a door, that’s somebody –

I scramble for my pistol and lift it with a shaking hand. My heart pounds in my chest and it’s a struggle to get enough air, no matter how hard I breathe. The man, he steps towards me – he has a double-barreled shotgun aimed at my head. He says something but his words don’t make sense in my ears.

“No closer.” My voice is so raspy I don’t even recognize it, but I manage to point the trembling barrel of my pistol at his chest. I’m not going to die like this. Not at the hands of one of Becker’s men. But Becker…

A girl screams and latches onto the man’s arm. What the hell is a child doing here? The man tries to push her behind him but she’s looking at me and she’s sobbing. The man takes another step forward and I start to pull the trigger.

That girl. Oh God, those tears. Suddenly I am her; I feel the rough texture of my Pa’s sleeve in my hands – Becker towers over me – I see the gunpowder billow from the barrel of that rifle and I scream as my Pa falls, clutching at his chest that’s already wet with blood.

But I’m not that girl. Now, here, I’m…

Horror washes over me and I let the pistol fall from my limp fingers. My head’s too light to think, but I know I would rather die than become to some other little girl what Becker’s been to me. Clenching my eyes shut, I lean back against the wall.

And wait for the blast of gunpowder.

* * *

Pa’s standing over me.

I can’t see his face – the world is both too bright and too dim at the same time – but I know in the very depths of my soul that it’s him. My heart leaps and I have the sudden urge to jump into his arms, like I’d run in my bare feet to meet him when he came in from working the fields.

But I’m not that little girl anymore.

The weight of everything I am now crashes in around me. It looks as though I could reach out and touch him, but the space between us is a great chasm. I can’t find any words to say. Pa doesn’t speak, either, but voices echo in the void – these I recognize, but I can’t make sense of the words.

Pa just watches me.

He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t move. He ought to hate me but somehow I know he don’t. At least, I think I know.

His figure blurs and the void shifts. No, it’s not a void – it’s a room. There’s a window, curtains drawn, a plain wood dresser… I can feel the clothes and sheets on my skin, the ache in my head and shoulder. I’m lying in a bed, propped up on pillows. That figure by the door, it’s not my Pa, that’s…

I blink, hard, but still don’t believe my eyes. “Mel?”

He turns back, I guess he was about to leave, then gives me a lop-sided grin. “Yup.”

My jumbled mix of memories makes it hard to think, though I might remember… My right arm’s in a sling, but I can move the left one well enough to run my fingers through my greasy hair.

I can’t manage more than a whisper. “What…?”

Mel picks a cup off the dresser and tries to hand it to me. I’m parched, but my arm shakes too much to hold it. He clamps his hand over mine and helps me raise the cup to my lips. I manage three gulps of water before I have to gasp for breath.

“What in the hell am I doin’ here?”

Mel laughs at me this time. He returns the cup to the dresser then he pulls a chair up beside the bed and sits in it backwards, with his arms folded over the backrest. “My cousin Ardal’s daughter found you half dead in my barn yesterday. We brought the Doc up, he took a bullet out of your shoulder and said that it was best we didn’t move you. I hope you remember the rest?”

Jesus Christ, I almost shot… I let out a shuddering breath. “Thank you.”

Mel shrugs but doesn’t look me in the eye. “I owe you that much.”

Right. There you were, ready to blow your own brains out, and still all I could fucking think about was Becker. “I’m sorry.” That comes out before I know what I mean.

Mel eyes me curiously, but shrugs again then jerks his chin toward the crimson coat hanging off the corner bed post. “I should have figured you were the rider.”

I stare for a long time at the bloodstain that mars the whole right side of my coat. Maybe you didn’t know it was me, Mel, but you were right about everything else.

The silence makes me aware of myself – I try to push back the blankets. “I should go, you shouldn’t have to-”

“No.” Mel almost jumps out of his chair and puts a hand on my shoulder to stop me. His calloused fingers brush against the skin exposed by my baggy shirt; he pulls away, but manages to meet my gaze. “It’s alright, Rhoda. Doc said you’d lost a lot of blood, he wasn’t even sure you’d wake up…” He chuckles and rubs the back of his neck. “Most of the sheep ran off. I don’t have much to do, anyway.”

* * *

“Welcome back, stranger.”

I bite back a grimace as Emily pulls me into a hug, but other than dull ache in my shoulder it feels right. She holds me at arm’s length to study my face and tears pool in her eyes.

I manage a grin. “I told you I had it handled.”

She scoffs and for a second I think she’s going to slap me. If I wasn’t still in this sling I’m sure she would have.

“What’s the doctor have to say about your arm?”

I shrug – I can still do that at least. “He says the bullet must have damaged something. I might get some function back over time but he doesn’t know for sure.” Emily looks at me with such pitiful eyes that I have to give her a smile. “Hey, I can still do this,” I pull my fingers back to open my hand. We’ll leave out the fact I can’t curl them into a fist.

Emily laughs, but – damn it, she looks like she’s about to cry again.

“It’s alright. Honest.”

She sighs then takes a seat on one of her own barstools and motions for me to do the same. “What’s the Crimson Rider going to do without her shootin’ arm?”

“Well, I am still pretty good left handed...”

Emily pulls back, horrified.

I laugh and lay my plain brown cattleman’s hat on the bar. “Between you and me, I think the Rider’s dead.” It’s about time I found something else to live for.

Conversation from the back table fills the comfortable silence and I take a moment to breath it all in. Emily leans forward to study me with a frown.

I raise an eyebrow. “What?”

“You haven’t asked for a drink.”

I grin, but give her a look of warning all the same. “Damn it Emily, don’t tempt me. I promised Mel-”

“Mel?” She perches her chin on her folded hands and leans her elbows on the bar. “Mel O’Sullivan?”

My cheeks flush with heat, but a big, stupid smile spreads across my face anyway. “You know damn well which Mel.” Emily waits like we’re two schoolyard gossips and I can’t help but oblige her. “He’s taking me to Brownville today. Says there’s some circus riding through.”

“Oh, very nice.”

Hoof beats sound outside the on the street and both Emily and I turn to look back. It’s Mel, pulling his bay mare to a stop. He searches the saloon for a minute before he finds my gaze, then smiles and waves. He’s polished his boots, washed the mess of red curls sitting under his hat, and tucked his shirt into his britches – somehow I’ve caught myself one damn fine man.

Emily latches onto my arm. “You take this slow, alright?” She’s grinning, but there’s something all too serious in her gaze. “I don’t want to have to take up some vigilante mantle of my own if he breaks your heart.”

I laugh, then scoop up my hat as I slide off the barstool. “How many times do I have to tell you not to worry about me?”